The Top 10 Underwater Science Fiction Books

underwater

Science fiction writers love sticking people in tiny metal cans and hurling them into environments where everything is trying to kill them, so it’s no surprise that some great SF books take place deep underwater, where exposure to the pressure kills people much faster than exposure to the vacuum of space.

An unexpected pattern: many of the books below focus on the psychology of their characters more than typical science fiction. This may be because in underwater science fiction stories, the protagonists are generally more isolated, since there are no new planets to arrive at, and spend a lot of time with each other in their little bubble of air, squabbling with their shipmates and their own personal demons.

These books are sorted by popularity, based on star ratings and number of reviews on amazon.com.

1
Sphere
by Michael Crichton – 1987

Crichton says he started writing the novel in 1967 as a companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. He began with American scientists discovering a spaceship underwater that had been there for 300 years but with stenciled markings in English. However, after that beginning, Crichton realized, “I didn’t know where to go with it,” and put off completing the book for twenty years until he decided what an alien should be.

As with most Crichton novels, Sphere is gripping and thoughtful until it unravels into a somewhat disappointing ending.

2
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne – 1870

Highly acclaimed when released and even now, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is regarded as one of the premiere adventure novels in literature and one of Verne’s greatest works, along with Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Verne himself has been the second most-translated author in the world since 1979, between the English-language writers Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare.

While most classics can be something of a pain to slog through, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea holds up quite well.

3
The Scar
by China Mieville – 2002

Written by a self-described author of “weird fiction,” The Scar is a dark, depressing, wildly inventive anti-epic with a floating pirate city and multiple underwater civilizations. The beginning is a little bumpy: as one reviewer notes, “All through the first 40 pages or so you can hear the grunts of a writer straining too hard for effect,” but “[o]nce the novel settles down after its ill-judged beginning, Miéville begins to construct an intriguing plot of espionage and deceit.”

It’s also not for someone looking for a Windex-clean universe like Star Trek. The Scar is the second book in the Bas-Lag universe (the first was Perdido Street Station), and another reviewer notes that while The Scar is “less gruesome and nihilistic,” than the first book, it is “still refreshingly far from sentimental.”

4
Startide Rising
by David Brin – 1983

Brin’s tales are set in a future universe in which no species can reach sentience without being “uplifted” by a patron race. But the greatest mystery of all remains unsolved: who uplifted humankind?

The Terran exploration vessel Streaker has crashed in the uncharted water world of Kithrup, bearing one of the most important discoveries in galactic history. Below, a handful of her human and dolphin crew battles an armed rebellion and the whole hostile planet to safeguard her secret—the fate of the Progenitors, the fabled First Race who seeded wisdom throughout the stars.

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Startide Rising is the second book in the Uplift series (there’s a total of six), but popular opinion has it that the first book, Sundiver, can be safely skipped.

5
The Swarm
by Frank Schätzing – 2004

Whales begin sinking ships. Toxic, eyeless crabs poison Long Island’s water supply. The North Sea shelf collapses, killing thousands in Europe. Around the world, countries are beginning to feel the effects of the ocean’s revenge as the seas and their inhabitants begin a violent revolution against mankind.

Some of science in The Swarm is undoubtedly due to Thomas Orthmann, a German marine biologist and journalist, who claims that dozens of passages in The Swarm have been lifted word for word from his writings. Currently, he is demanding compensation from Schätzing, who refuses to pay. He has, however, agreed to acknowledge Dr. Orthmann in the next edition of The Swarm.

Most reviewers agree that despite its flaws of thin characterization, pages upon pages of scientific explanations, and strong anti-U.S. sentiment, The Swarm is a thrilling read.

6
Camouflage
by Joe Haldeman – 2004

An artifact is discovered off the coast of Samoa, buried deep beneath the ocean floor. The mysterious find attracts immortal alien beings, a “changeling” and a “chameleon”, who seek each other for different reasons: one harbors good intentions toward humanity, while the other is extremely hostile.

Kirkus Reviews says, “Well-constructed and intriguingly set up, but ultimately a disagreeable surprise: the story slips away, and you’re left holding an empty coat.”

Other reviewers seem to agree with Kirkus, so if you read this tersely-written alien-encounter procedural, lower your expectations for the ending.

7
Starfish
by Peter Watts – 1999

Emotionally damaged people are sent to work next to a giant rift in the ocean floor, harvesting energy for surface dwellers. The workers are a bio-engineered crew—people who have been altered to withstand the pressure and breathe the seawater to work in this weird, fertile undersea darkness.

This book taught me that you can make a protagonist as crazy as you want, as long as what she’s battling against is even crazier.

Brilliant, twisted fun by an ex-marine biologist. Go read it.

8
The Dragon in the Sea
by Frank Herbert – 1956

In the near future, oil has become the ultimate prize, and nuclear-powered subtugs brave enemy waters to tap into hidden oil reserves beneath the East’s continental shelf. But the crews from the last twenty missions have never returned. Have sleeper agents infiltrated the elite submarine service, or are the crews simply cracking under the pressure?

One reviewer says it is “a dramatically fascinating story,” while another claims “[t]here are no real people in it, only psychological types and syndromes walking around on legs.”

So feel free to dive in, but since this was written nine years earlier, don’t expect a wet Dune.

9
The Kraken Wakes
by John Wyndman – 1953

The Kraken Wakes is about an alien invasion—from the sea.

John Wyndham (pseud. for John Beynon Harris) is best known for his classic Day of the Triffids. Like that book, this one posits an intelligent species with needs and aims unimaginably different from our own, and describes the escalating phases of what appears to be an invasion of Earth by never-seen aliens.

Reviews are generally excellent, but some people on Goodreads were put off by the decidedly non-feminist treatment of female characters.

In total, The Kraken Wakes is a good read that’s showing its age a bit.

10
Reefsong
by Carol Severance – 1991

After narrowly escaping death in a forest fire, Angie Dinsman finds herself under the control of the World Life Company. They promptly equip her with webbed hands and gills, creating a half-fish, half-woman. Her mission is to uncover secret research files on the waterworld of Lesaat. But first she has to undergo the terrifying process of learning to breathe underwater. After mastering the basics of survival, she faces an insurmountable challenge: finding the information that could end starvation on Earth while sabotaging the Company’s evil plans.

Carol Severance comes by her knowledge of Polynesian culture and mythology honestly: she served with the Peace Corps from 1966-1968 and later assisted in anthropological fieldwork in the remote coral atolls of Truk, Micronesia. Eventually, she moved to the Big Island of Hawaii and worked as a journalist.

Reefsong isn’t well known, but it definitely has a cult following—all of its reviews have five stars. A typical example:

“A nice blend of fantasy (mostly) with a little sci-fi thrown in–a fast-moving, thought-provoking story in a gorgeous other-worldly Pacific-Islandesque setting with a strong, smart heroine at its center.”

This is probably the least science-fictiony of the lot, so depending on your mood, you might be ready for a tropical planet story.


 

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6 thoughts on “The Top 10 Underwater Science Fiction Books

  1. I have been trying to remember the name of the book “Starfish” for almost ten years now! I read it when it first came out, and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the title when I wanted to re-read it several years later. So excited that this list jogged my memory!

  2. I’ve been trying to find a novel I read a while ago. It takes place underwater and the main character is the first kid born in this underwater settlement. I know it’s not a lot to go on but does anyone have any idea what the heck it is?

  3. no OCEAN SPACE by Allen Steele … ok (to light)
    no BLUEHEART by Alison Sinclair … ok (not so easy)
    but no OCEAN UNDER THE ICE (in the Rocheworld serie) by Robert L Forward ? it’s a classic , a must read for all sf addict

    many thanks for your BEST SCI FI BOOKS blog I a happy man with new lists of books to read soon

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